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Q & A with… Ronny Siegel

Gilad Shalit

WEST HARTFORD – On June 25, 2006, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by the terrorist group Hamas, together with two other terrorist groups, the Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Brigades and The Army of Islam, in an unprovoked attack in which two soldiers were also killed.
Shalit, then 19, has been held hostage in the Gaza Strip by Hamas ever since. To date, the young soldier has not been allowed a single visit by the Red Cross or any other humanitarian group, a clear violation of the Geneva Convention. Repeated attempts by Israel to negotiate for his release have been rebuffed by Hamas.
Now, as the fifth anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s capture draws near, his family continues to campaign relentlessly for his release.  Their long, frustrating struggle is chronicled in a new documentary film called “Family in Captivity.”  The film will be screened this month at both the Mandell JCC in West Hartford and the JCC of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge.
The Ledger spoke with Ronny Siegel, director of Israel programs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford who is coordinating the West Hartford screening, about the Shalit family struggle.  A resident of West Hartford, she was born in Israel where she spends several months a year.

Can you fill us in on how the family has made Gilad Shalit a cause celebre in Israel?
A: Gilad Shalit was captured five years ago. His family started pressuring the government of Israel to work to free him. It became impossible because Hamas, of course, is a terrorist organization and it is impossible to deal with a terrorist organization.
During these five years the Israeli government has been debating the issue – because there are a lot of political issues here on the left and the right:  Should we release prisoners with blood on their hands?  How many should we release?  etc. It has been debated for years, and every Prime Minister has a committee and another mediator who runs between them and us.
So, the family really is the one who keeps this issue in the public eye. His mother especially has really succeeded in capturing thousands of mothers in Israel who’s mantra has become “Ben shel kulanu” – “Gilad is a son to us all.”  He is the son of each one of us.  The singer/songwriter Aviv Geffen wrote a song about it and that is the song the mothers sing every time they gather and they gather a lot…thousands of them.
When I was in Israel two years ago there was a walk throughout the country in support of Gilad Shalit. Hundreds of thousands of people showed for it.  So, the less action there is on the part of the government, the more the public in Israel lends their support to the family. In Israel it’s a major issue and a major cause to support the family.
Remember, the soldier being held captive in Gaza is still a kid. And being a captive of terrorists is not something a 23-year old kid can take. The impact on his mental and physical health could be unbelievable.  Some who have been through similar experiences have suffered for the rest of their lives.

Politically speaking, are those who support the family to the right or to the left…or both?
A: The first reason to support the family – and to come see this film – is because it’s a humanitarian gesture. Since we are always arguing on the left and on the right, this is something that crosses all those lines.  You can and should support this because it is simply the humane thing to do. It isn’t really a political issue and it shouldn’t be a political issue in the American Jewish community.  If we’re looking for something that will unite us, this is the perfect issue.  And this film is the perfect opportunity to come and support the family of Gilad Shalit. Beyond being a humanitarian cause, saving a prisoner – “pidyon sh’vuyim” – is a mitzvah and we must do it. Every organization and every individual should be involved.

You mentioned the fact that the Red Cross has not been allowed to visit Shalit.  Has the Red Cross actually made any kind of serious effort to visit him?
A:  No. That’s why we have to push them. The family now is asking Jews in the United States to start pressuring the Red Cross.   In fact, the last time we saw him at all was about a year and a half ago when Hamas released some sort of video.  That was it.  No letter. No phone. Nothing.

Is the family frustrated with the Israeli government’s action – or inaction?
A:  Yes.  The family feels that the government should have Gilad’s interests first.  But there is a multi-level dialogue within Israeli society about this – whether or not terrorists should be freed in exchange for prisoners like Gilad Shalit.  Remember, these terrorists we’re talking about freeing have murdered other people’s families.  So, it’s a dilemma – the Shalit family isn’t the only family affected here.

Are they angry just at Netanyahu – or has it been every Prime Minister within the last five years?
A:  Not just Netanyahu.   They’ve been angry at whoever has been in charge.  When Ehud Olmert was Prime Minister he appeared to be trying to do more than Netanyahu. But everybody has been trying behind the scenes and I don’t doubt that Netanyahu is doing what he can behind the scenes.  Coalition-wise he probably can’t get enough support to free so many terrorists.  And it’s almost a moot point – because whatever they offer Hamas turns down.

What is it that the family hopes to accomplish by showing the film here in the United States?
A:  One reason is to show that support for the Shalit family does not come only from Israelis – that we Jews here in America also consider Gilad Sahlit our son. American Jews are also in a position – a better position than Israelis – to put pressure on the Red Cross to visit Gilad, so that we at least know what kind of shape he is in.
Also, we want the American government to pressure Hamas, now that Hamas has united with Fatah.  As long as Hosnei Mubarak was in power in Egypt he tried to pressure Hamas, although he didn’t succeed much.  Now, he’s not there.  But perhaps we can pressure Fatah to pressure Hamas.   American Jews can write the Red Cross, they can sign petitions, they can contact their Congressmen and Senators.  We must do all we can to help Gilad Shalit.  He really is a son to us all.

“Family in Captivity” is a one-hour documentary in Hebrew with English subtitles.  It will be screened at:

Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, on Tuesday, June 21, 7 p.m.  The film’s director Tal Goren and members of the Shalit family will be on hand to speak and answer questions. For information: (860) 236-4571.

JCC of Greater New Haven, 360 Amity Rd., Woodbridge, on Monday, June 27, 7 p.m. For information: (203) 387-2522, rgross@jewishnewhaven.org. $10; $5 student

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